Layout Design

Whether you design it yourself or we design it for you or we design it together, a good layout starts with a good plan.


At the outset of any layout project, whether we do it or you do it or we do it together, is the planning stage. Sometimes the customer knows exactly what he or she wants, sometimes the customer just wants a train setup and has no preference but usually most people fall somewhere in the middle. You the customer have a dream and we discuss that dream with you and help fit it to the realities of space, budget, and existing technical limits.


Considerations for Planning a Layout

People generally want some combination of four things from a model railroad: artistically executed scenery, interesting operational challenges, entertaining actions and activities, and historical depiction. Almost all layouts have to compromise some of these aspects in order to emphasize other aspects, so the first question we ask a customer is ‘what do you want your layout to do for you?’


1)      Artistically Executed Scenery- Model Railroaders and spectators all appreciate scenery that looks impressive. There are a number of factors in making scenery look impressive but realism, good color, dynamic shapes, and variations in texture are some of the key elements. This factor is independent of scale or layout size and is not even particularly dependent on money necessarily. It often is dependent on artistic skill and this may take some experience. Some scenery types are easy to execute and inexpensive to execute (mountains, fields, roads, and forests), others relatively easy but more expensive (cities and other structures), and still others take some skill and practice but are fairly cheap to do (rock faces and water). Most of the time, layouts that emphasize scenery are designed for the trains to ‘run through’.

2)      Operational Challenges- Many model railroads want to actively operate their trains and make them do ‘train things’, especially picking up and delivering cargo and passengers, making up and breaking down ‘consists’ (groups of cars to be pulled by a train), or navigating in and around other working trains. Some ‘operational’ layouts can actually take up less space than a layout that trains have to ‘run through’ because ‘switching’ can be accomplished on very narrow shelves. One can build an operational switching layout, even in O scale, on a 12” wide shelf so long as it is long enough.

3)      Entertainment- Part of having a layout is sheer entertainment and much of this is derived from the simple movement of the trains themselves as they navigate the layout. It’s fun watching them run, especially when they cross over each other or make sounds and puff smoke. Aside from the movement of the trains themselves, however, many model railroaders like to have other things actively ‘happen’.  Traditionally O gauge trains have emphasized and promoted working accessories but other scales have them too, though they are more rare, generally more fussy, and often take some particular skills to install.

4)      History- Railroads have a complex and fascinating history that is interwoven into the fabric of modern world history. Trains made things happen that would not have happened otherwise. Some good, some bad, most depend on your perspective, but all interesting. Sometimes history is shown as a particular setting on a railroad layout, sometimes but the collection that is run on the layout. At its most demanding, a layout can be built to exactly reproduce a particular place or structure or scene or event.



The next consideration in planning is space. Model railroads take up space and ultimately space determines the overall track plans that are possible. In general, operations can require a lot of space or very little depending on the operation(s). Entertainment can be packed into a small space and in fact too many things going on can actually be a distraction. Historical emphasis needs space appropriate to what is being depicted. Scenery is not specifically space dependent but particular scenes might be.



A client who already has an investment in a particular scale will have to accept the limitations on the layout within the space available. Clients who are not invested in any particular scale have more flexibility. Small scales (meaning the size of the equipment is smaller) generally can fit more ‘stuff’ into a given area.


Although this is not a hard and fast rule, in general, operational emphasis works best with smaller scales and entertainment emphasis with larger scales. Historical accuracy may be scale dependent according the availability of appropriate items. Certain scenery types are easier in some scales than others but basically one can make good scenery in any scale.


Within a particular scale, the specific equipment chosen can limit layout design. Ex: Marklin brand HO equipment can turn tighter and climb steeper than other HO equipment. Older trains were generally smaller than modern trains. Passenger cars are typically much longer than freight cars. Clients who want to depict a specific time period and/or type of railroad equipment may be limited in layout design.



The final and often most decisive factor in layout design and construction is money. Model Railroading is an expensive hobby. How expensive depends largely on how large, sophisticated, and complicated the layout, whether the components are bought off the shelf or scratch built, and how much labor the customer is willing to do versus how much they wish to pay others to do. The cost also depends on the quality of components which is usually (but not always) directly proportional to the cost.


A good layout design can be executed for relatively little cost and an expensive layout can still not be very good if it does not do what the customer wants. Naturally Rail Tales wants the customer to spend what is necessary to execute a particular design properly but ultimately, we want you to spend your money wisely in order to achieve your goals.


Free Design Consultation

We are happy to discuss general model railroad hobby matters with any interested person. Part of our job is to familiarize potential train customers with the model railroad hobby.


For those of you who are interested in getting started or in expanding or restarting the model railroad hobby, we will provide general guidance for layout construction and introduce you to various options as well as showing you published plans and making general sketches. Knowledgeable staff is on hand Fridays and Saturdays from 10 to 5 and at other times by arrangement. This service is provided at no cost so long as you are willing to purchase the bulk of your layout supplies from us.


This free design assistance is for customers only! Please understand that our time is valuable and if you intend to purchase your supplies elsewhere for whatever reason, we request that you obtain your design assistance from some other source. We respect your right to purchase your product wherever you wish; please respect our right to spend our time assisting persons who help keep us in business.


Flexible Layout Construction

For the customer who is not really sure what he or she wants in a layout for any reason or who does not have the resources for the ‘ultimate’ layout plan, the use of temporary track arrangements may be desirable. This allows the customer to easy change and add to a track plan as concepts evolve.


Paid Design Consultation

Rail Tales is happy to sit down with you and work out a detailed plan of construction for a layout, whether we do it, you do it, or we do it together. This often includes a site visit so we can take measurements and make more specific recommendations. If we draw up a specific plan for a customer to execute, the charge is 25$ an hour including travel time. The customer gets a copy of the plan and gets to name it if desired but Rail Tales reserves the right to use the plan in the future for additional layouts. If Rail Tales is hired to build all or most of the design, there is usually no design charge. Rail Tales again reserves the right to reuse the design.


Site visits for general recommendations for work the client undertakes is billed at 25$ an hour including travel time.

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